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Glossary

parchment

the skin of a sheep or goat prepared as a material on which to write

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The Process of Making Parchment
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Although older books did not contain a detailed description of how parchment was made, the method did not change over the course of several centuries. In fact, it was still practiced in Europe in the Middle Ages. Most probably the hides of small animals, such as sheep or goats, were first soaked in water and lime for three days. This was to melt the fat and any remaining meat from the hide. Then the wool was sheared and the skin was stretched until it dried completely. It was then treated, polished, and cut into regular square shapes, ready for use. Both sides of the parchment were inscribed.

In most cases, the writing would eventually disappear, either because it was no longer important or because it was written over. Parchment that was inscribed more than once is called "palimpsest" and it is of great value to historians, for whom the older text is generally more important than the later one. It is now possible to easily read and record the vanished text through the use of infrared rays.

Although Egypt produced ample quantities of papyrus, which was relatively inexpensive, parchment was preferable because it could be made wherever small animals were reared. Its production, however, was more expensive than papyrus and the amount produced did not fulfill the needs of the market.

Papyrus continued to dominate the market and parchment, despite its better qualities as a writing medium, could not compete with it. This situation lasted until the final years of the Roman Empire when the users of papyrus decreased and parchment replaced papyrus.

Christianity played a role in this development as both Christians and Jews preferred to write their sacred texts on more durable material. They believed their sacred books, the Bible in the case of Christians and the Torah in the case of Jews, were as important as places of worship and should not be written on material that would disappear with time.

This had not been the case in the Greco-Roman world where books were seen as everyday objects to be used and discarded, even torn to pieces.

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Parchment with Orange-Colored Cross
Parchment with Orange-Colored Cross

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